At the outset of the most recent meeting of the Dallas City Council, Councilman Sheffie Kadane stepped to the dais and delivered the following prayer:
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the gorgeous day You've given us today. Guide us year-round to serve the Lord, let us glorify You in all that we do. Let us bless You and praise You in all of our deals here today at the council, amendments and whatnot.
Lord, be with our mayor, guide him, lead him in doing a great job for a great city. Be with all our men in blue. Guide them, keep them all safe from harm and evil. Take care of us now, Lord. Teach us what You want us to know. Let us do Your will in all that we do.
In Christ's name, amen.
No one raised any objection to the invocation's decidedly Christian slant, not Councilman Lee Kleinman, an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the editor of a book on Gelfite Fish for Dummies, and not anyone in the audience, which at that early hour was somewhere between sparse and nonexistent.
Perhaps it was because Kadane's request for wisdom and guidance was inoffensively anodyne; maybe it was that similar invocations are delivered before every council meeting, albeit usually by a visiting pastor rather than a sitting council member. (You can find the guidelines established by Mayor Mike Rawlings at the end of the post). The lack of objection, however, doesn't necessarily make Kadane's remarks constitutional.
That's what the Supreme Court is currently debating in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case in which two women -- a Jew and an atheist -- sued a New York municipality claiming that its pre-meeting invocations, which, in the eight years before the legal challenge, were always delivered by Christians, amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the state.
The women lost in district court but won on appeal. According to SCOTUS Blog, the appeals court "emphasized that most of the prayers were 'uniquely Christian' -- referring, for example, to 'Jesus,' 'Your Son,' or 'the Holy Spirit.'"
The court also pointed to the clergy members' use of phrases like "let us pray," since they encouraged audience participation in the prayers and gave the impression that they were speaking on behalf of the town, all of which describes Kadane's remarks to a T.
It's hard to tell from yesterday's oral arguments before the Supreme Court how the justices will rule. Countless hypotheticals were floated and and stumbled over by the attorneys on either side (see Slate's coverage here), and there was no clear agreement on whether the 30-year-old decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which allowed state legislatures to open with prayers for the basic reason that they had already been opened with prayers, was good decision or whether it applies to municipalities.
First Baptist's Robert Jeffress is much clearer. In an op-ed published last week by Fox News, he recounts a time when he delivered a prayer at a Dallas City Council meeting, ending with a shoutout to "the one who came, and died, and rose again that we might have eternal life -- Jesus Christ our Lord."
He was challenged by a council member who, he writes, had a warped understanding of the Constitution.
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"The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion but has absolutely nothing to say about local governments allowing prayers at city council meetings, nativity scenes in the town square, or invocations at high school graduations," he writes. "Subsequent court decisions that have prohibited such free expressions of religious beliefs are based on a gross distortion of the First Amendment."
Luckily for the rest of us, Jeffress doesn't get to decide these things.
Update at 3:22 p.m.: Here are the invocation guidelines put forth by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings:
The invocations before the Dallas City Council's weekly meetings offer the opportunity to experience and share in the diverse range of faiths in the North Texas community, as well as a general appeal for divine guidance.
Our policy is to reach out and include representatives of many denominations, faiths and beliefs, and we welcome suggestions. Everyone invited to lead the invocation is provided with a copy of these principles.
We remind those invited to pray that the City Council and staff, the audience and the listening and viewing public are made up of people from many faiths and beliefs. We ask that for this setting, prayers offering guidance to the Council and public be constructed in a nonsectarian manner, prayers that touch many and do not offend.
We ask that the invocations be inclusive and not divisive, and that they do not utilize language that disparages or advances a specific denomination, faith, belief or creed.
Your participation and assistance in this is appreciated. Should you have any further comments, questions, or concerns please feel free to contact the mayor's office.